Add as bookmark

Biosynthesis - A Body Psychotherapy

by Yig Labworth(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 43 - August 1999


It has been revealed recently that many people in Europe are turning to antidepressants to fight stress. But stress is held in the body, although its results are produced over and over in the mind.

Body-psychotherapy has existed for more than sixty years, but has met with little social recognition, unlike psychoanalysis, which has gained respectability via the medical profession. It has functioned more as an underground movement in the world of psychotherapy, mostly because psychotherapists fear that touching the body could mean sexualising the therapy. However, this could happen in any therapy, and body-psychotherapists have to learn how to be scrupulous in this area, respecting clients' boundaries.

The author with client. Earth Touch being given for support

The author with client. Earth Touch being given for support

Body-psychotherapy addresses the whole person, integrating language, its expression via the head, and its connection to the rest of the body; body language, or body expression. It enquires how thought forms manifest as incomplete tensions in the body; and by following blocked impulses – loosening tight muscles; encouraging better muscle and visceral tone and helping more centred breathing, many changes can happen to a person's thoughts and belief systems, hopefully reducing stress. During our lives, we often stop listening to what we really want to do. This gets translated into our muscle system. The muscle spindle system (which could be considered the "brain" of the muscle) knows what the real intention is, and in healthy states this is reflected in outer action being congruent with the inner state. When we don't follow our impulses, and do what someone else tells us is right for us to do or is good for us, tension patterns occur. We don't only have a brain in the head. The whole being of a person is intelligent and interconnected (this has been demonstrated scientifically in recent years by the new science of Psychoneuroimmunology). We just need to learn how to reconnect the head with the body, which is the role of a good body-psychotherapist

History of Biosynthesis

Biosynthesis is a body-psychotherapy developed by David Boadella in the early 1970s. His approach grew out of many years experience with Reichian therapy. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a doctor and psychoanalyst who worked with Freud in Vienna in the 1920s. Some years later in Scandinavia, he developed his method of vegetotherapy which involved direct work on the body to release emotional and muscular blockages and to recover a sense of pulsation and streaming in the body. He developed this work from 1933 onwards.

The roots of most schools of body- psychotherapy can be traced back to the work of Wilhelm Reich and his vegetotherapy. Two separate developments, important to the foundation of Biosynthesis, emerged out of the Reichian tradition. The first was bio-dynamic psychology, the work of Gerda Boyeson who used forms of massage to free up blocked energy in the body. David Boadella taught seminars and helped her set up her training school when she moved from Oslo to London. The second development was bioenergetic analysis which was created by Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos in New York. In bioenergetics, the focus was on stress positions and will-directed movements which were very much in the control of the therapist. Although David was called to talk at their international conferences, he felt himself a stranger to their 'dominant therapist,' and 'pushing for catharsis' ways of working.

David Boadella completed his training in vegetotherapy in the early 1950s and began work as an individual therapist in 1957.

Other influences leading to the development of Biosynthesis were related to the actual formative process of life as expressed in functional embryology. Biosynthesis means integration of life. This term was first used by Francis Mott[1], an English psychoanalyst, to describe the organic roots of the life process in embryonic 'umbilical affect' (belly feelings), 'kinaesthetic affect' (perception of movement) and 'foetal skin affect' (sensations), which are related to the embryological layers in the body. Mott's work in biosynthesis was a major inspiration to the English clinician Frank Lake[2], who worked deeply with pre- and peri-natal issues and was also one of the first to develop the bi-polar characterology used in Biosynthesis. Just as emotionality is grounded in the bi-polar tendency of the nervous system, moving instantly from parasympathetic rest to sympathetic arousal due to stress or shock; Lake understood that character also responded in the same way. According to the severity of stress we experience, we might swing between two contrasted bi-polar states, for example overactivity to underactivity, as in manic to depressive behaviour, or one person is overactive and another person is underactive, and therefore different approaches to therapy are needed. What is good for one person is not good for another.

David was so encouraged by Lake's work, that he introduced him to the Institute for the Development of Human Potential (IDHP) in London set up by David Blagden Marks. Both Frank Lake and David Boadella became Directors of this first European Growth Centre. David was also asked to teach this polarity concept and his therapeutic integration of these various approaches at the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations. At this time David was extending and refining many of these ideas, especially the early embryological model. Also in this period there was extensive collaboration with Stanley Keleman at the Centre for Energetic Studies in Berkeley. Keleman had a background in bioenergetics and chiropractic, but was strongly influenced by the functional integration studies of Moshe Feldenkrais. His focus was not on regression or energy discharge, but on the formative process of growth and the reorganising of body postures, the shape of our pulsations.

Courses in Biosynthesis were taught in over thirty countries between 1975 and 1985, including North and South America, Japan, Australia and Europe, all originating in Britain. The name of David and Sylvia Boadella and Biosynthesis were well known here at that time, but less has been heard of him in the UK since they set up the Centre for Biosynthesis in Switzerland in 1986. Training in Biosynthesis continues throughout the world.

Fundamentals of Biosynthesis

If we define the role of therapy as one of leading us back home to ourselves rather than how to solve problems; we can understand what the phrase 'the integration of life' means. It concerns how we live within ourselves, our bodies and our minds, not just about changing our thought processes, though this is important too. Stanley Keleman3 called this the "emotional anatomy" of the body; how we "do" ourselves moment to moment, our sensations, our postures, our thoughts; our being in the world now. We can say that we are healthy, as Reich4 discovered, when we are free from emotional muscular blockages and we recover pulsations and streamings in the body.

The Pulsatile Body

Everything that is alive in our universe pulsates; from the cell to the galaxy. All energy is fundamentally vibratory, and pulsates from contraction to expansion. The human body plus energy is a life form, or morphic structure, with many pulsations in different directions in the body. The body has a front and back. The front is the centre of sensitivity, perception, of sexual orientation, the place we take in, both through the nose and mouth, and is also the area of love feelings. The back contains the motor system of the body, which propel us through the world. The long muscles in the back can collapse when we give up, or strengthen when we use our will to take action.

There is a right side and a left side; connected to our two brain hemispheres. Our left side is more intuitive, non linear, imaginary side whilst the right is our more logical intellectual side. We have a top, or an up pull and a bottom, or a down pull. If we are in our head too much, our energy gets pulled up there and becomes rigid. In Biosynthesis we say that such a person has cerebral armouring. Also energy can get pulled downwards to the pelvis, legs and guts and cause muscular armouring. We have an inside, where we can live too much of the time and become remote. or we can be on the outside and find it hard to be inside ourselves, always needing to be talking or mixing with other people. We can be living in the past too much, or the future, and find it difficult to be present. Our pulsations in all these directions creates the time and space of all our actions, both inner and outer. Some pulsations can be seen, like our breathing, or felt, like our heart beating; or felt by another, like our cranial rhythm; but we have many others on the molecular, and sub molecular levels of our being.

Over time, our system gets disordered through stress and trauma. This creates incoherent (disorganised) patterns in our energy system, or frozen pulsations, which are reproduced again and again throughout the body. A Biosynthesis therapist has to learn how to listen and look for these pulsatile patterns through posture, energy charge (where energy is stored in the body), people's stories and unconscious and conscious language, images and dreams.

The author with client. Working with Air Touch and Breathing

The author with client. Working with Air Touch and Breathing


In Biosynthesis a crucial concept is that of the three life streams, which derive from the three germ layers in the developing embryo: the endoderm, the mesoderm and the ectoderm. David Boadella has developed three principal therapeutic modalities from these specific morphological regions of the body and calls them "centering", "grounding" and "facing."

Centering is related to the rebalancing of the breathing, and concerns how near or far away we are from our centre. Centering is represented by the endodermal layer, which is the innermost tube of development in embryology, the whole digestive tract, which is about taking in, assimilating and letting go. With centering this relates to the metabolism of energy, which is powerfully influenced by emotion. The bi-polar extremes of the energies of this layer as seen in clients would vary between emotional acting out on the one hand, (the hysterical client), to emotional apathy on the other, when the client is locked in their head and has no awareness of feelings.

The mesodermal layer; "grounding", relates to the tonus of the muscular system. It concerns how we deal with gravity. We are grounded when we have the right tonus we need to do a particular task. The bi-polar extremes would be overgrounded, where the muscles are to tense or rigid (hypertonus); or undergrounded, where the muscles are too soft or weak (hypotonus).

The ectodermal layer, "facing", is related to the sensory and information processes system in the brain. In relationship, this would be about adequate eye contact with another, and how we use the face, eyes, jaw, ears, mouth, chin and skin. The bi-polar extremes of this principle would be between the overfocused position (tunnel vision) and the underfocused position (scatter-vision).

Pulsatile Diagnosis

In Biosynthesis we work energetically with emotional expression, the unfolding of movement possibilities; and the development of integrated perception and creative insights, in order to co-ordinate or balance these three layers. There are various exercises or structures we would ask our clients to attempt in order to make a pulsatile diagnosis i.e. looking at the whole body and its organisation. We can then help clients to re-organise their movements or postures, building up strength, and freeing up natural pulsations. We could look for potential intentions locked into tension patterns in the muscles, or help a client breathe and connect with emerging impulses. We always have to remember how we repeat our patterns on every level of our being, in order to complete incomplete impulses and pulsations. This work is not about quantities of expressiveness, but in terms of the quality of expressiveness, and how this relates to the contact with the therapist. Naturally, as in most forms of psychotherapy there is an awareness of transference and counter-transference, but in body-psychotherapy this can be deepened by the inclusion of the non-verbal work. In Biosynthesis we speak of organic presence and somatic resonance, which is how we respond to another's bodily process with empathy.

Bridges in therapy

We don't have to just look back in therapy, as in regression, but to use progression and see what is in the way towards integration. Since the whole body is intelligent and interconnected, all layers have an affect on the others. David Boadella teaches how not to go to the "traffic jams" in the body but to look for the bridges that could free up the restricted energy. The endodermal layer is centred around the front of the body including the lungs, the autonomic nervous system, hormones and digestion, whilst the mesodermal layer is more centred towards the back of the body and includes the bones, muscles, connective tissue and the heart. The bridge between them would be the diaphragm, and we might work with the breath if someone was active but hardly breathing, or breathing without action.

The Ectodermal layer is centred in the head. The bridge from this to the mesoderm would be the neck, which David Boadella calls the "Piccadilly Circus of the Body" since it represents the crossroads of many major functions – nervous, blood, cerebrospinal fluid and lymphatic connections from brain to body, passage of food, liquid and air, as well as the muscular, bony and fascial connections. There is a pronounced linkage between the neck and the diaphragm; both of these areas can close off breathing. The bridge from the ectoderm to the endoderm connects in the throat. When this is open, there is expression, congruency, and aliveness in feeling and language. When a throat block exists there is suppression, often leading to depression, with "flattened" speech and emotions. The bi-polar opposite of this is the hysterical person who overexpresses feelings.

Biosynthesis is a process therapy, which recognises the Actualising field (the expression of our potential) in every human being. This potential gets distorted by traumas of some kind and thereafter creates energy excesses or deficits in the whole system. The energy gets translated in our brain as a belief system – a certain constellation which we identify with. This becomes difficult to resolve because it is fixated. We say "this is me" and "this is what I do". We relate to the world like this and so our world becomes how we believe it to be. Our mind shapes our reality and our images may be real or deluded

Life Fields (see Diagram below)

Redrawn from Institute of Biosynthesis brochure. Heiden, Switzerland.

Redrawn from Institute of Biosynthesis brochure. Heiden, Switzerland.

The original activating field is not lost, and can be reactivated. We often think we can't change our habitual ways of being, but we can do this, discovering the missing links via what Biosynthesis terms the Life Fields of experience. These Life Fields occur in 2 forms as shown in the diagram. The outer circle represents a closed system – how we habitually keep ourselves "in prison" with distorted pulsations. The inner circle represents healthy responses to life, relationships and connections to ourselves. In each of the 6 outer segments of the diagram a different life field is expressed, and the ability to move between these fields makes our work rather complex, but rich.

Nothing is left out. The Art of Biosynthesis therapy is to enter the inner circle at the centre of the diagram – which is most connected to the essential self of the person. We work on an exploratory paradigm, rather than a treatment paradigm – seeing what is ripe in the client, what they are ready for, not what we think might be good for them. We try and follow the "loose end of the string", unwinding the easiest thing that presents itself. We don't break through resistances but instead follow the "flow of the current", allowing an opening from the inside out, inviting the client to travel a little further than they think they can do on their own. If we get stuck with one Life Field, we just switch to another.

Options might include improving muscle tone and exploring movement expression; energetic work on vital and subtle rhythms of breathing; work on patterns of invasion and deprivation in the relationship between client and therapist, and others outside the therapy situation; distorted patterns of emotional repression or expression; work with defensive and confusing language, or perhaps looking at transformative or restrictive images that limit our vision. In the centre of the diagram is our connection to our Essence, Spirituality, our Heart. This we believe is the grounding of our essential qualities in daily life and thus is also a major focus of the therapeutic work.

The diagram can also be seen horizontally. Between 1 and 2 there is a connection, which relates to connections in the body between movement and breathing. The central zone, between 3 and 4 is about contact – how we perceive the world and other people, and how these relationships affect us and our emotional expression. The upper zone between 5 and 6 is about Context, and how we embody certain experiences, and how that informs our stories and images. We can also envision the hexagram diagram with a vertical division: on the left (1,3,5) are interpersonal events, what is seen on the outside of the person – posture, movement, relationships, language, relationships with others. On the right (2,4,6) are intrapersonal events; inner images, felt emotions, inner rhythms of breathing – all inside the person. These areas surround a transpersonal Core-Self or Essence.

Working with Motor Fields

In Biosynthesis we are working in a dialectical way between verbal and non-verbal communication, seeking to find a bridge between inner ground and outer reality. The work is with specific patterns of movement intentionality, termed flexion and extension (bending and stretching) and opposition (pulling and pushing), absorption and activation (being still or active) and rotation and canalisation (turning or straight). We would ask clients questions as we work with these "motor fields" such as: "What kind of gesture do you want to do as you tune into your arm?", or "How does it feel to push me away?" These patterns are deeply connected to developmental neuromuscular sequences in prenatal life, during birth and in childhood. For example a person might think "I need to pull people into my life, or else I will be isolated", but when they slowly work with impulses of pushing and pulling they might find they actually enjoy pushing away. This might lead to them building up strength and learning to take in nourishment for themselves, rather than relying totally on others.

Channels of Contact

We envisage four Channels of Contact between therapist and client. Sound, which includes language, styles of listening, and voice tone; the channel of Eye Contact, both looking out and being seen (this is very important to explore with a client who feels shamed and doesn't wish to be seen). Also there is a channel of contact with the Ground, via our legs, comprising our systems of support and our posture, and finally the channel of contact through our hands.

We work with four principal elements of touch.
Earth touch, related to support and grounding the body;
Water touch, which facilitates the expression or containment of emotions;
Air touch, strengthens the respiratory system, and can help frozen parts of the body come alive;
Fire touch, which communicates warmth and security.

We have a fundamental need for touch, touching ourselves and others, receiving touch in the healthiest way, so that we can enjoy our vitality and sexuality without limitations. The belief in Biosynthesis is that appropriate touch is important in psychotherapy if we are ever to relearn good contact in cases where there has been touch deprivation or invasive contact in our earliest relationships.


Since Biosynthesis is truly an "Integration of Life" it is both a diverse and integral form of psychotherapy. When people enter therapy it is often because there is an absence within, something they do not know, or cannot do, to fulfil their life. They need to learn to be more present, at home in themselves. They may have hidden skills and resources, images and hopes which need grounding in the world, in their bodies and in relationship to others. Biosynthesis therapy is spiritually oriented in that it attempts to embrace our rootedness here in the world and also beyond time and space.

It has been used as a form of Self-development; in neurosis; with psychosomatic problems; with borderline and pre-psychotic problems; and in several clinics it has been used with addictive clients to strengthen their body-image. Its application of techniques and its understanding of the wide range of polarities in the choice of approaches to work with a client makes it suitable to be taught to Bodyworkers who wish to extend their knowledge. It has also has been used in Education in Denmark: in Austria and Israel in their healthcare system, and to effect social change in Brazil.

I was touched to hear the report, at the 1998 International Congress of Biosynthesis in Mallorca. A Biosynthesist therapist was working in Joa Pessoa in Brazil, where the fishing community lived and worked in near-slavery conditions. Using Biosynthesis therapeutic group work he was able to create changes to their degree of self-esteem such that they were able to throw off this yoke of oppression, and for the first time own their own boats and begin to exert some control over their lives. Effective therapy is not a self-indulgence for the middle-classes! Changes in the lives of individuals lead to changes in societies – for the better!

Biosynthesis is an open system without a fixed and final set of theories or methods. This short article can only cover a few basic principles of the work, which continues to evolve as new ideas can be added around its core of fundamental principles. Hopefully this flexibility will enable its applications to remain diverse and creative, and it will have a positive impact worldwide.


1) Mott, Francis. (1952). The Universal Design of Birth. Philadelphia.
2) Lake, Frank. (1966). Clinical Theology. Oxford.
3) Keleman, Stanley. (1985). Emotional Anatomy. Centre Press.
4) Reich, Wilhelm. (1933). Character Analysis. Vienna. Reprinted 1969 Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Further Reading

Boadella, David. (1987). Lifestreams: an introduction to Biosynthesis. Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Lowen, Alexander. (1958). The Language of the Body. Macmillan NY.

Further information

International Institute for Biosynthesis, Benzenruti 6, CH-9410, Heiden, Switzerland. Tel: +44 (0) 71 891 6855; Fax +44 (0) 71 891 5855.

A Case Outline

   (Because of the nature of psychotherapy, this must be considered a mere thumbnail sketch).
   Jo (not her real name) is a 34 year old graphic designer. She came to me when her ME syndrome had begun to exhaust her so much that she had to stop work. She had already been to see some alternative therapists, but her levels of energy were not improving, and one of the therapists suspected emotional issues were a key factor in the illness.
   In spite of her illness she was always smiling when she came in, and asking how I was. I would tell her she reminded me of the tinsel on top of a Christmas tree. In her family she’d been the one to cheer everyone else up, especially her mother. She was actually very insecure, and over time I realised that she locked herself tightly away “inside her bubble”, seeming to be involved with others, but actually remote.
   During her first year of therapy we worked with contact, particularly making use of Earth and Fire touch. In spite of this helping her feel more secure, in the transference relationship I was like her mother to whom she wanted to be nice and to please. This theme stayed a focal point throughout the therapy, only gradually receding. We worked more with eye contact and breathing until she was really aware of how she moved away from contact with me to her remote bubble, and back again. Then she began to find more energy to do new things in her life. She had started to draw again, which she really enjoyed.
   We constantly needed to work with moving from remoteness to contact, because any major disturbance in life would push her back into her bubble and sometimes she was unable to find ways back out. I gave her many exercises, strengthening her sense of self so that she wouldn’t lose her boundaries when she was with her family. Most of these exercises concerned working with grounding through the legs and arms. As her energy levels increased our sessions together became more energetic, as pulsations were generated. She began to enjoy traction and opposition structures, learning to push away what she didn’t need, and only pulling towards her what felt good. Now she could feel the anger and resentment towards her family members.
   We explored how her front side had become her mask – the friendly, loving person who would help everyone and smile sweetly to make others feel better. Her back side held the energy charge, which probably accounted for the low back pain she had on and off for years and also to some extent the energy involved in holding this pattern was leaving her exhausted. As her grounding improved (i.e. the energy flowing down her legs and arms) the up pull of energy to her head lessened. She could now easily choose not to stay in her remote bubble of negative thoughts. She started wearing bright colours instead of the drab greys and blacks of our early days together. Indeed this could be a metaphor for much of her life now. Being true to herself nowadays, her whole life is brighter and lighter, and she has energy to work again. 



  1. No Article Comments available

Post Your Comments:

About Yig Labworth

Yig Labworth trained with David Boadella in Denmark from 1991-4 and is now a Biosynthesis therapist, trainer and supervisor. She runs the Centre for Biosynthesis (UK) in Exeter, Devon. Previously she was a trainer in Core Process Psychotherapy for the Karuna Institute for 10 years. Other training includes the Bath Centre for Psychotherapy and Counselling, Group Work and Family Therapy. She specialises in working with the effects of shock and trauma from a Body-mind perspective. She is a member of UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy) and EABP (European Association of Body Psychotherapy). Yig has run a 3 year training in Biosynthesis in the UK and will be running further training as well as short courses for Psychotherapists, Counsellors and Bodyworkers who wish to incorporate Biosynthesis principles and methods into their existing work. She can be contacted on Tel/Fax 01392 427370.

top of the page